How It All Began...
I am often asked how and why I am on the road living and travelling in a VW campervan with my dog researching male mental health. I can understand people’s curiosity, it is hardly a typical life choice.
The truth is, I had envisaged a very different life for myself, one that included a townhouse with a large garden, not too far from the buzz of a city but far away enough to be serene, and little ones bouncing around filling my days equally with frustrations and delight. But life rarely travels in a straight line or happens as planned. What no-one tells you when you’re young, is that life just kind of happens. Blink and years have passed.
That’s how I found myself on a summer’s day in a packed, hot, uncomfortable train from Liverpool to London, exhausted, frustrated and empty. Staring out of the window while a waft of an unwashed armpit imprisoned me in a commuters hell, I had an epiphany. I was working incredibly hard, I had the house, I had the garden, I had the car, but not much else. I barely saw my own dog let alone friends and family so why was I working so hard? Who was I doing it for? What did it matter?
Work was, and still is, an excellent coping mechanism for me. If anything goes wrong in life you will find me nose-buried in a laptop lost in a maze of work. Many times the distraction has been my saviour but ultimately, it is also my downfall.
When I realised this on that busy train I was oddly liberated. My brain started working over time wondering if there was a different way to live. I didn’t know about #vanlife at that point. That revelation was to come months later, but that train ride is where I can pin point the beginnings of a unstoppable change.
It was the fear of losing everything I had worked so hard for - a successful career and a lovely house (which is no mean feat on a single salary and a bad credit score) - that really held me back from taking any action.
There were two things I knew for certain;
I didn’t want to fail my Masters in Education.
My dog was coming with me.
The second certainty was what led me to #vanlife. I didn’t want to put Dougie the dog through the stress of flying nor did I want to leave him behind. He’s great in the car and the EU has a brilliant pet passport scheme so a campervan made perfect sense.
As for the first certainty, I had been studying part-time for a MA in Education for nearly three years at the University of Chichester. Many evenings and weekends had been dedicated to getting this far. I didn’t want to waste all that hard work, but I also just really loved learning again. Being a mature student meant I had a new appreciation for everything I took for granted the first time - the expertise of the tutors, the wealth of resources in the library, and being able to afford Costa coffee.
Delving into the psychology of why children behaved the way they did and the emotional aspects of learning ignited something in me that I had long since thought dead; a thirst for knowledge.
Over the years I had developed a good relationship with my tutor who had been incredibly understanding and supportive before when I needed to take time out for my mental health. I decided to confide in my tutor my need to make a change.
I had planned to ask what the steps were to postpone my final year would be, but before I could get the question out of my mouth, my tutor excitedly told me about the University’s plans to develop a Masters in International Education and had I considered doing research in this area?
No. I hadn’t. But I had recently read the Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan who travelled to the most successful countries in the world to explore the secrets behind their education systems. Plus, only the other day a neighbour had given me a book about Finland’s schools and how they supposedly value wellbeing above grades.
It had got me thinking…
In my line of work I was increasingly supporting vulnerable teenagers who were at risk of dropping out of school with no qualifications or future prospects. The majority of these children were boys. It was this experience that led me to research the connection between mental health and behaviour in adolescent boys for my last assignment. It had opened up more questions than answers, so I knew I wanted to explore this area further in my dissertation.
With my tutor’s encouragement and my neighbours timely gift it felt like the universe was aligning. I would be a fool not to listen to it.
I found my VW T25 campervan on Auto Trader, the guy was local, I called him to arrange to view it at a nearby garage. I loved it the moment I laid eyes on her. I decided to risk it; to trust that I was in the right place at the right time. Less than two days later I was a proud owner of a 28-year-old campervan that is going to take me all over Europe.
While this is a thrilling life-changing adventure, it is also travelling with a deeper purpose. As I explore new countries I will be visiting schools interviewing teachers and running focus groups to discover the meaning of masculinity in the 21st century and the impact of gender role conflict on young men’s mental health.
So far I’ve interviewed six schools in Wales and Scotland who have some of the highest rates of male suicide in the UK. I’m not planning on stopping there though. I’m working on creating an online questionnaire so I can reach more schools and gather even more data. In the new year I will be travelling to France, Spain and Portugal to work with schools there. In the Spring I plan to travel to the so called “Happylands;” Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Germany and Belgium.
I hope that gathering this kind of information will help to bring about a greater understanding of male mental health and how we can create a generation of confident, successful individuals who celebrate kindness, acceptance and charity to not only others, but themselves.